When the writing demands talent and discretion, call the ghostwriter

J.R. Moehringer (left) and Andre Agassi, who worked together on Agassi’s highly regarded memoir, in Las Vegas, November 10, 2009. (File photo: NYTimes)
The cover of Prince Harry’s new memoir has a simple design: a close-up of his familiar face, looking calm and resolute behind a ginger beard. His name is at the top of the frame, and the title, “Spare”, is at the bottom.اضافة اعلان

What the cover does not include is the name of the book’s ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer.

Perhaps the most exalted practitioner of a little-understood craft, Moehringer aims, ultimately, to disappear. Ghostwriters channel someone else’s voice — often, someone else’s very recognizable voice — and construct with it a book that has shape and texture, narrative arc, and memorable characters, all without leaving fingerprints. Doing it well requires a tremendous amount of technical skill and an ego that is, at a minimum, flexible.

“If I’m a great collaborative writer, I am a vessel,” said Michelle Burford, who has written books with broadcaster Robin Roberts, actress Cicely Tyson, and musician Alicia Keys. “The lion’s share of my job is about getting out of the way, vanishing so the voice of my client can come through as clearly as possible.”

What does a ghostwriter do?The way she explains it to her clients, she said, is that they provide the raw materials to build a house, and she puts it together, brick by brick.

“You own the bricks,” she said she tells them. “But you — and there should be no shame in this — don’t have the skill set to actually erect the building.”

The process can vary widely from writer to writer and project to project. There are writers who push hard to have their names on the cover, and those who never do. Sometimes writers who do not agree with their subjects expressly request that their name be left off.
“The lion’s share of my job is about getting out of the way, vanishing so the voice of my client can come through as clearly as possible.”
Fees can range from about $50,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is even little agreement on what to call a ghostwriter; some strongly prefer the term “collaborator”, because they think “ghost” implies something shifty about the arrangement, or that the subject — generally, the “author” in contractual language — had nothing to do with the finished product.

“Authors run the gamut from someone who is a complete control freak and has to approve every semicolon to those who barely phone it in,” said Madeleine Morel, an agent who specializes in matching book projects with ghostwriters. “And when you start working with someone, you don’t know where they’re going to fall on that curve.”

Often, a writer will meet the subject only a few times, then follow up with phone calls, emails, and texts. Others say that in order to get enough of a sense of the person to capture on the page, they need at least a few dozen hours in the presence of a client, sitting together in a room or shadowing the daily routines of the subject’s public and private lives.

To write Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open”, Moehringer moved to Las Vegas, where Agassi lived. Agassi said he bought a house 1.6km away from his own, and Moehringer occupied it for two years while he worked on the book. All the writer requested was a long table where he could lay out the scenes he would piece together “like a necklace”, Agassi recalled. They would meet in the morning, fueled by breakfast burritos from Whole Foods.

“I’d spend a couple of hours with him over breakfast and a tape recorder,” Agassi said.

Ghostwriters write books in someone else’s voice — without leaving fingerprints. Doing it well requires great technical skill and a flexible ego. (Image: NYTimes)

“Open” is widely considered a paragon of sports autobiographies — a raw and honest excavation of a well-known life. Agassi said he sought out Moehringer to write the book — “romancing” him to do it, he said — after reading Moehringer’s memoir, “The Tender Bar”, about growing up with a single mother.

“It was the first autobiography I’d read that didn’t feel like a global press conference,” Agassi said.

Digging deepA former newspaper reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, Moehringer has a reputation for intense work habits — he rarely sleeps when finishing a book — along with a good sense of humor and strong opinions about the projects he works on, even if they ultimately belong to somebody else. Like any reliably employed ghostwriter, Moehringer is also known for his discretion.

Prince Harry’s book is his third ghostwriting project. Maybe.

“It’s quite hard to tell; it’s the third that I know of,” said Will Schwalbe, who was editor-in-chief at Hyperion when it published “The Tender Bar”. “There could be one out there that I don’t know.”

Beyond doing the writing, a good ghostwriter also encourages subjects to go beyond what they might say on their own, a crucial challenge with public figures who have been famous for many years and whose life stories are already well known.

Indeed, some agents argue that by pushing their subjects, ghostwriters can make books more authentic than if they were written by the public figures themselves.

Agassi said Moehringer asked the hard questions needed to help him dig deeper but that he felt safe throughout the process; the honesty that resulted from their collaboration is part of what made the memoir so highly regarded.

“He’s half-psychiatrist,” Phil Knight, a founder of Nike, said of Moehringer, who collaborated on his memoir, “Shoe Dog”. “He gets you to say things you really didn’t think you would.”

Creating a comfort zoneBurford, who collaborated on Keys’ memoir, said a significant part of her job is making her clients comfortable by creating the right circumstances for them to open up. She does not interview them, she said, but tries to have normal conversations. She broaches delicate subjects in phone calls late at night, she said, when clients can curl up on the couch, maybe feeling like they are “talking to a stranger on the bus”. She will also try to mirror her clients: If they show up in a T-shirt and jeans, she will dress casually as well.

“I’m often working across racial lines and gender lines,” she said, “and anything I can do to make us feel more alike than different is helpful to the collaborative process. So if you’re coming in with bed head, I’m coming in with bed head and no makeup.”

For a long time, any book written by a ghostwriter was dismissed as merchandise. Many potential readers still might consider a book with an additional writing credit on the cover to be less intimate, as if the collaborator was a barrier between the reader and the subject.

The fact is that most people do not have the time or the ability to write a good book, practitioners said.
“Doing a craft like I did for so long at the highest level, you understand the difference between the best and the rest.”
“Writing is a technical skill,” said Jon Sternfeld, whose collaborations include a bestselling memoir by actor Michael K. Williams. “People don’t give it the technical credit it deserves.”

In recent years, the stigma has started to melt away, in part because some of these books, like “Open”, are very good.

“The analogy I always draw is, in the old days, nobody would ever admit to internet dating, and now everybody talks about it,” said Morel, the agent who connects ghostwriters and subjects. “In the old days, nobody would ever admit to working with a ghostwriter or collaborator, and now it’s accepted, by and large.”

Although the stigma has lessened, it is not gone. There are public figures who take more credit for the writing than they should, publishing professionals say, and celebrities who insist they wrote a book all by themselves when they did not.

Agassi, on the other hand, said he wanted to put Moehringer’s name on the cover of “Open”.

“One of my strengths is knowing my weaknesses,” Agassi said. “Doing a craft like I did for so long at the highest level, you understand the difference between the best and the rest.”

But Moehringer declined such public credit, Agassi said. He preferred to disappear.

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